Accepting Second Best
April 18, 2010
John 21: 1 – 19
There is a powerful lesson in today’s Gospel. But it is difficult to spot because of the English translation of the Greek text of the scriptures. In English we use one word, “love,” for a number of different circumstances. But in Greek there are different words for different kinds of love. The Greek word agape describes the highest kind of love, a self giving love, a creative love, a love that is similar to the love of God. But Greek has another word, philia, to describe ordinary human love, the kind of love that we give to one another. Now there is nothing wrong with philia. Human love is a good thing. But it does not compare to the exalted status of agape.
Three times in today’s Gospel Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” And three times Peter responds, “Lord you know I love you.” But what we cannot hear in our English translation is that two different words are being used here for love. Basically what Jesus is asking of Peter is the highest form of love, agape. But what Peter is offering in return is ordinary human love, philia. If I was going to push this translation to catch this nuance it would go something like this. Jesus asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me with the highest form of love?” And Peter responds, “Lord I love you with ordinary love.” Disappointed Jesus tries a second time. “Simon, son of John, do you love me with the highest form of love. Peter responds again, “Lord, I love you with ordinary love.” By this time it has become clear to Jesus that although he is asking the highest form of love from Peter what Peter is offering in return is only ordinary love. This sets the context for the important lesson that is present in this Gospel. Jesus asks a third time, and this time he does not use the word agape. This time he uses Peter’s word for love. A third time Jesus says, “Simon, son of John, so you love me with ordinary love?” And Peter says, “Lord you know all things, you know that’s the way I love you.” Then Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”
Now the lesson that emerges from this interplay of Greek vocabulary is that Peter falls short of Jesus’ expectation. But Jesus accepts Peter anyway and makes him the shepherd of the sheep. Jesus wanted the highest form of love from Peter, but Peter could only offer a lesser kind of love. But Jesus settles for second best. He still commissions Peter to be the leader of the early church. Of course Jesus is showing us the way that God loves us. God always calls us to more, always calls us to a higher level. But when we fall short, when we cannot reach that highest level, God accepts us anyway. God still commissions us to be disciples.
This is a very comforting message to us as we look at our own inadequacies. But from another perspective it is a challenging message, because the greatest commandment of the fourth Gospel is that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us. And if Christ has loved us even when we don’t rise to the highest level of his expectation, then Jesus is asking us to love one another in that same way.
How much frustration do we have in our life because the people in our life are not the people we want them to be. We want our leaders in the church and in government to be wise and to anticipate problems and to solve them before those problems hurt us. But very frequently those leaders fall short. They get behind the curve and they appear confused or inadequate. We want our spouse to be understanding and attentive. But many times we experience him or her as harsh or preoccupied. We want our boss to be creative and flexible. But many times all that is asked of us is attention to routine detail. If only our children would be more motivated; if only our parents could be less stubborn; if only our friends would be on time. In matters large and small the people in our life often fall short of who we want them to be. And the message that comes to us from Jesus’ action with Peter is that we are still to accept them as the people that they are. We are to love them for the goodness that they offer us rather than criticize them for the goodness that they lack.
Now this does not mean that Jesus asks us to put up with anything, or that we should not hold people accountable, or that we should not challenge people to grow. But it does tell us is that when people love us, there is wisdom in accepting that love even if it is second best.
There is a line from an old film, Sunday Bloody Sunday, where one lover tells another: “I know I’m not giving you what you want, but I’m giving you what I have.” In a way, that is what Peter says to Jesus in today’s Gospel. “I’m not giving you the love you want but I’m giving you the love I have.” Jesus accepts that love and commissions Peter to feed his sheep. Jesus does that because that is the way Jesus loves us. That also is the way he wants us to love one another.